My Missing Bag as Spiritual Teacher

Cynthia follows up this post with another, going even more deeply into her “Four Voices” method of discernment. You can find that one here: More Discernment on the Four Voices

My Missing Bag as Spiritual Teacher  –   Blog post by Cynthia Bourgeault

Since my interview with Terry Patten last June, many of you have been clamoring to hear more about my “four voices” method of discernment. It’s a way of listening to myself I developed on my own over the past twenty years or so, based on the idea that there are multiple selves within me, each one with its characteristic slant and agenda. Before a decision can be made that has any chance of holding water, it’s important to allow all of them—or at least the four major players, whom I call Nafs, Soul, Spirit, and Heart—to weigh in and come to terms with each other. Failure to do so will result in a discernment where the dominant voice pushes its agenda and the others proceed to sabotage it: the usual “hung jury” incapacitating any real action.

How does this work in real time? Little did I know that fate was about to deliver me a prime teaching example.

Lost and abandoned luggage

Lost and abandoned luggage

On my flight this week from Boston to Glasgow to launch our first UK Wisdom School, my bag went missing. Somehow I already knew in Dublin, with that sort of instantaneous grim clarity that often heralds such blows of fate, that my bag was not going to survive the transfer, so I was dismayed but not really surprised when it failed to show up on the carousel in Glasgow. Thirty-six hours later, when it was time to board the ferry to Holy Isle, our glorious but remote destination, the bag had still not been located and the baggage claims service was not responding to either phone call or email. Inside it were all my clothes, foul weather gear, lecture notes, and other personal items—including, you’ll be sad to hear, my signature red hat.

Okay, a perfect occasion to demonstrate how the method works.

Some Basic Definitions

First of all, a word about these four voices. “Nafs” is the Sufi word for “the lower passional soul.” It pretty much equates to what Thomas Keating calls “the false self,” but I’ve never really cared for that term because the false self is— well, empirically true, an authentic voice in the discernment process. And like it or not, it has the final say. Unless you get it onside, nothing you decide is going to stay put.

By Soul I mean that core sense of my own identity generated through the use of the “faculties,” as St. Thomas Aquinas called them: memory, reason, emotion, and will. Soul is the keeper of my meta-narrative, that collection of experiences, preferences, and core yearnings that go to make me “me.”  Soul is the one who is fascinated by dreamwork, enneagram typing, all those little quizzes on Facebook that threaten to divulge who you really are. It’s the part of me that tears up seeing a sunset, has mystical experiences, hungers for the infinite, and of course, does soulwork. It’s the artist painting the canvas of my life in time. It’s the part of me that’s haunted by the three-quarters of myself that, like an iceberg, lies beneath the surface.

By Spirit I mean that deeply interiorized voice of my own highest spiritual reality. A tad impersonal, it often feels as if it’s coming from above me rather than within me. But it sure does know the highest possible outcome in any given situation and what it takes to get there.

“Heart” is a bit difficult to pin down, largely because it doesn’t have an ongoing stable identity. It appears only situationally and usually has to be teased out (more on that in a bit). But when it does appear, its voice is unmistakably clear and resonant.  It has a considerable overlap with Soul but there is an entirely different “sound” to it: intimate and personal, yet spacious and fiercely grounded.  And it’s nearly always surprising.

Setting up the Playing Field

So there you have it: a thumbnail sketch of my four discernment co-conspirators. The next trick is to get them talking to each other. In this case of the missing bag conundrum, I began as usual in my journal, by opening to a blank page and constructing a kind of spreadsheet diagram.  I divide the page vertically into four columns, labeled Nafs, Soul, Spirit, Heart. Then I ask each to weigh in on two questions:

  1. How do you feel about the situation?
  2. What should I do next?

I then record the raw data.

Four Voices ChartSo here’s the raw results of the bag conversation:


How do I feel? I feel freaked out, frightened, invaded. Unsafe. My mind is racing. I can’t let it go. See, I’m tossing and turning at night in this strange bedroom, far away from home.  I’m compulsively turning over scenarios of what could have happened. Jumping up at night to check the phone messages and email … My security/survival programs are on full alert.

What should I do? Bolt.  Cancel the Wisdom School and take the next flight home.


How do I feel? I’m mostly in deep grief and nostalgia about those special items I’ve lost: my red hat, the notes from all those Wisdom Schools. I’m wondering why it happened in the first place, trying to figure out if this is a “lesson,” and if so, how I can get it right so my bag will come back.

What should I do?  Be by myself. Absorb this hit with proper mourning and inner reflection. Get back to home ground where I know how to be me, where my familiar things, and the cat and grandkids are there to give comfort, to make it all feel okay again. The last thing I want to do is teach this Wisdom School.  I’ll do it because I agreed to, but maybe I can compromise, curtail my trip by a few days, and get back to my REAL life as soon as I can.


How do I feel? Bag? What bag? What part of non-attachment do you not understand?

What should I do?  Return your attention to the present moment, let go, and lead the Wisdom School. The missing bag is a spiritual trifle. You know that you must—and can—let it go.


How do I feel? Listen up good here!  You have two choices. You can either run home or you can take this on. Remember how Rafe said,  “It takes a gambler’s heart to do the spiritual journey.” Step up to the plate and see where it leads you. Bring curiosity as a counterweight to fear.

What should I do? Go into town and by some essential clothes so there is no orphan drama around the retreat. And stop checking the phone messages and email.

The Law of Three in Action

Once everyone has individually weighed in, the essential process is to hold every voice in respect and love. Each part is doing the best it can with the situation as seen from its perspective, and each has my best interest in mind. I now simply have to get them on the same page.

Essentially, as I have come to see it, the task is to find an inner place where you can hold the two irreconcilable opposites, Nafs and Spirit. In this case, Nafs wants to bolt and run home. Spirit wants to “keep calm and carry on.” Spirit is right, ultimately, but that wise, slightly impersonal “highest right action” is unsustainable as long as Nafs (which holds the key to the action) is flatly defiant and soul is lost in nostalgia. If one simply represses or overrides the Nafs—essentially spiritual dissociation—there will be hell to pay later.

If this sounds like a set-up for the Law of Three, you’re right. But the way it works is a little bit surprising. Let’s for the moment, call Nafs “affirming” or first force, since the force of its desire for action, however panicky and dysfunctional, is vividly palpable. And let’s call Spirit “denying” or second force because it pushes back with the voice of lucidity and wisdom, but feels a bit disembodied: an ideal me rather than a real me. What could be the third force bridging them?

Soul? Wrong. Third force is “Heart.”

Remember how I talked about having to “tease Heart out,” how it emerges only situationally? This is according to the Law of Three corollary (which I don’t make much of in my Trinity book but is certainly the chief operative in this situation):

“The higher blends with the lower to actualize the middle, which then becomes the lower to the preceding higher and the higher to the preceding lower.” 

In other words, as I sit, bearing the paradox willingly in the embodied space of my heart, allowing the painful clash of viewpoints and competencies to simply be, the Heart, the middle, begins to actualize as “third force.” You can actually feel it “come online” as a force-field—or more accurately, a new system of perception— within your body. The energy shift is sudden and vividly palpable. One moment there were two; in the next heaven and earth have somehow miraculously joined. The power is suddenly there to see and be what Spirit is envisioning, but the energy is personal, coming from within the center of one’s personal, finite being, with no repression or “cleaning up the act.” Heart will speak only when it is ready, but when it speaks, the quality of “seeing” the solution combined with the power to do is suddenly released.

(Incidentally, if you think I’ve just described the Welcoming Practice here, you’re right. I have.)

Earlier I stated that it is Heart speaking, but this is not actually so. Heart is actually the operating system through which the speaking happens. But the speaker is actually Self—by which I mean that deep, integrated, fully finite and personal yet integrated and unboundaried Self which is who we actually are, but have no dependable access to in this earth plane. That Self—essential Self—emerges as the  “new arising,” or fourth in a new dimension, which emerges when that dyad of Nafs/Spirit is brought into new relationship through the reconciling force of Heart. Then discernment will come, and it will be sustainable.

You’ll find essentially this identical configuration described by Kabir Helminski in his The Knowing Heart (pages 76-80), as the linchpin of Sufi transformational practice.

Discernment Attained

So the bag has still not shown up, I have an oddball new wardrobe to get through these next five days, and Wisdom School is off to a flying start. I do not know whether there will be some pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow, with the bag mysteriously appearing on my doorstep. It doesn’t need to. Unlike Soul, this Heart-Self is not dependent on a meta-narrative, an external meaning structure to confirm the coherence of a course of action. No need for happy endings. If the cherished items are gone forever, so be it. What they were pointing to all along, like clumsy props, has been found deeper inside.

What about Soul?

A parting thought: where does Soul fit in all this, then? Is it simply a superfluous bystander in this conversation? Not at all. Again in Law of Three language, the Self that speaks through the Heart is actually the counterstroke of the Soul: the same basic quality but now manifesting on a higher plane. That’s what gives the speaking its intimate force when heart finally weighs in; somehow Soul knows this already, but was waiting for a way to make this knowing its own. Soul is what “I” look like when I construct myself from the outside, using my faculties to “take a picture” of myself and project it into time and space. Heart-speaking is what “I” sound like when I am expressing myself from the center of my essential beingness. The images drop out, but the quality of aliveness remains the same. I am no longer seeking for myself in a painstakingly constructed picture of myself; rather, I spring like a coiled tiger from the center of my own being directly into the situation at hand. All the self-translation drops out.


A Happy Ending After All…

Cynthia with recovered bag

Cynthia with her recovered bag.

Just to continue the saga, the bag was miraculously located thanks to my stalwart Irish host, Bernadette Flanagan, who stormed the Dublin baggage hall and liberated my missing darling. It slowly made its way to me on my Scottish Island, but slow is way better than missing.

17 replies
  1. Peg McMahon
    Peg McMahon says:

    Sometimes I think I must be the most spiritually shallow person on the planet. You lose your bag & come up with a plan for spiritual discernment. I lost my bag forever a few years ago and am still morning my journal. All I managed to learn was: if you don’t want to lose it, carry it with you. Don’t check anything you aren’t ready to let go. Sigh. I guess I live in nafs-land.

  2. Mary Reilly Mathews, LCSWR
    Mary Reilly Mathews, LCSWR says:

    Thanks so much for this Cynthia. In my mind it is immediately linking up with other energy psychology teachings I have been exposed to that, interestingly, speak of the heart chakra as the intermediary between the lower (“incarnated experience” chakras) and the upper three (transcendent) chakras. I have used a discernment practice that has each of the chakra intelligences weigh in with their perspective…. it ends with the heart chakra as the reconciled point of view. I like this one!

  3. Amy@SoulDipper
    Amy@SoulDipper says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, so very much. I’ve been on a theme of authenticity and this post epitomizes it in so many different levels.

    I so love your language. It wraps so well around my understanding.

    Amy MacLeod

  4. Bob Holmes
    Bob Holmes says:

    Wow! Thank You Cynthia for being so open about the process. I’m a brand new reader. I’ve just discovered you.
    On the Nafs, I would call that the broken self, fallen self or even the fractured self. I think broken is the most descriptive. He seems to be close to the amygdala. Spirit, I would call that the whole self, because it’s where we dwell in wholeness. And for Heart, I would call that the integrated self, because the process of integration happens in our heart, ie things are resolved in our heart.
    Again thank you for sharing and allowing me to think out loud. I’m off to check out your link.

  5. Cynthia Bourgeault
    Cynthia Bourgeault says:

    Thanks, Terry, for joining in this dialogue. It’s particularly gratifying to hear from you, since you’re actually the one who inaugurated this whole conversation in the first place. I’m particularly appreciative of your clarifications as to how you use the term “Integral Soulwork”— that it’s actually closer to what I call “heart” than to what most of pop culture calls “soul.”

    And thanks to all you others who have posted as well. Your comments have been insightful and your concern touching. By the way, I’ve put a “Part II” together, which will be posted shortly. Stay tuned.

  6. Lava Mueller
    Lava Mueller says:

    Cynthia, that photo of you with your luggage is priceless! You are so adorable! Wonderful post too. Our little Vermont Centering Prayer group is contemplating The Law of Three; this post adds wonderful work to help us as we wake up to the truth.


    p.s. The pinched nerve in my neck is much better. It was pure bliss being in deep pain while at your Song of Songs retreat in Maine. (a rhyme!)

  7. Terry Patten
    Terry Patten says:

    A big vulnerable, slightly sad smile is on my face as I soften into the space I’m left in after reading this blog post, Cynthia.

    I’m so happy that life has conspired to use our public conversation, and the poltergeists of Dublin’s airline baggage handling system, to elucidate this elegant exercise, making it a gift to everyone.

    What is particularly resonating for me is this line, and what follows it:

    “The higher blends with the lower to actualize the middle, which then becomes the lower to the preceding higher and the higher to the preceding lower.”

    I’m struck by how useful it is to use the Sufi term, the “Nafs” — how this both dignifies and makes object these must-be-reckoned-with dimensions of our experience.

    It is clarifying, deeply, in terms of the alchemical process through which the “third” or “fourth” force emerges in consciousness. How cool that this also grounds it in such a clear and simple methodology!

    (BTW, Cynthia, this also helps me to be clear that what I have been pointing to in my “Integral Soul Work” is the mystical dimensions of what you here are calling the voice of the Heart. And what you are calling Soul is what I have been calling Self.)

    So glad you have your favorite bag and hat!


  8. Mo Riddiford
    Mo Riddiford says:

    Cynthia, I loved your detailed careful analysis of the competing selves. Great!
    But I’m also a man and a teacher, so we like to give advice.
    So digitise your notes and get them online!
    Like yesterday.
    A smartphone and Evernote is all you need.

  9. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Thank you, Matthew and Cynthia!
    A model formula. Very handy indeed and exquisitely presented….
    Thank you…Love, Kathy

  10. Kathleen Skilton
    Kathleen Skilton says:

    Despite all the ‘exterior’ trauma – what was delivered, was truly beautiful …. We were bathed in love, insights, understanding with a profoundly touching and clear energy! I am still absorbing the beauty of the 5 days – thank you Cynthia for giving us so much! Blessings and love xx Kati

  11. Anna Lin
    Anna Lin says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Thank you so much for this gift to teach us of your “four voices” used as your method of discernment.
    I was one of those clamoring to hear more after your interview with Terry Patten. This calms my relentless ponderings to discriminate between soul, spirit, and heart. I am grateful to have a new tool for making wise choices. And I’m grateful for all of your teachings to add to that wisdom as well.
    (in my humble attempt to be wise) 🙂
    So glad to hear your bag has been found.

    With grateful love ~ Anna Lin

  12. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I have some sense of inner relief knowing that you have a Nafs voice that is at least a first cousin to mine…if not a doppelgänger. 🙂 A very helpful map.

  13. Mark Dolan
    Mark Dolan says:

    Deeply appreciative for these discernment levels through a particularized and personal narrative – such caring teaching, this. Easy to become discouraged when one is laid low by the first voice Cynthia describes – a voice that, in its wake, makes us question even our ability to recover a contemplative stance, and so we feel terribly defeated hearing it; at least I do. But then I’m reminded that discouragement is the great enemy of the good; quick as that, it unravels everything.

    The tendency for students like me is to think, well, I’m just kidding myself, imagining that I’ll ever operate with anything more than an infantile grasp of spirituality; in other words, how can I get to the soul amid such a strident voice, nafs? How can levels of discernment co-exist? Thank you for showing me they can and for how to navigate, I’m especially grateful for how the soul fits in to everything, as you describe in the final section, and for simple way to dim the lights on drama.

  14. Sister Sioux
    Sister Sioux says:

    I love you. You are a true teacher.

    Because you are personal and real about your human struggles toward real-ization, you help me.

    That I would pull up your blog at this moment (I confess I haven’t for six months) leaves me smiling, and lifted.

    I am currently at a family reunion and, despite much progress in my familial relationships, I can slowly feel the cobwebs of old family stories start to settle in. Due both to my spiritual practice and some solid psychological work I have been able to watch both my Nafs stories and my Spirit commentary over the last two days. My dear husband and good friend arrived yesterday and sat with me while I deeply mourned the real pain of the Naf, and then, alternatively, bolstered myself up to the challenge of the Spirit. One bridge he and I came to was self-love and self-compassion in the moments of pain (to avoid spiritual dissociation). At some level, though, I was still back and forth, back and forth.

    Then, seeking a bit of spiritual nourishment, I just now pulled up this blog post (which you wrote today!). Again, love your realness, Cynthia. By hearing your real example, complete with Naf-bleating, it helped me try this process on, and I found the bridge of my heart (again).

    God Speed.

  15. Barbara Gray
    Barbara Gray says:

    The sign of the master in this is that you were able to face doing the presentation without your notes. Clothes are minor in this thought process! Good job!

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